There are so many different management practices available for farmers that it’s always good for them to hear about one that is successful at improving soil quality and water quality, while increasing yields. Cover crops can do all that.
Washington County, Iowa, farmer Steve Berger says the use of cover crops on his farm is one of the best management practices he has made. He’s been planting cover crops for nearly 15 years.
“It’s a great management practice and has helped us increase our yields. In 2014 we averaged 235 bushels per acre for corn and 65 bushels per acre on beans,” said Berger.
Berger also has used no-till on his farm since the 1970s, and he utilizes manure as a fertilizer from his family’s farrow-to-finish hog operation.
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey has also used cover crops on his farm and has found it is helping to improve the soil and water quality on his farm.
“We have worked to improve ways to keep the soil on our farm through the years by using erosion control through the use of terraces, no-till and conservation tillage. Now we are working on ways to improve the soil and the water quality,” said Northey.
“People are using cover crops, not because they have to, but because they want to improve nutrient reduction and water quality,” Northey continued.
Farmers are also receiving government incentives for practices that help improve the ground. Northey said nearly one-fourth of Iowa farmers use cover crops, and these farmers have received $2.8 million in incentives on over 100,000 acres of cover crops.
Berger said planning to add cover crops to a field takes preparation. Having the planter set up correctly is the first step, and he prefers getting nitrogen application available on his planter also.
“Nitrogen is important with cover crops, but you must know when to apply, where to apply and how to apply. This is especially important when using no-till to go along with cover crops,” said Berger. He applies most nitrogen in the fall on the surface.
Managing insects is also important to have a successful cover crop. Berger said cover crops attract insects and need to be managed properly. Some insects are beneficial and need to be in the fields, while others can be harmful.
Berger said building soil health doesn’t happen overnight. The keys to improving soil is to minimize soil disturbance, keep something growing and to know what the watershed is and what is coming off the farm ground.
“Before I started using cover crops, I noticed the yield monitor would increase in areas where we had removed an old fence row because the organic matter was higher,” said Berger. “We thought we would try cover crops to see if that added the organic matter to the entire fields and improved our yields. So far, it has.”
Cover crops on the Berger farm help hold both soil and water in place. The Bergers plant cereal rye behind their crops after a fall application of manure for a nitrogen source. Depending on timing of harvest, they have also flown on cereal rye if needed.
“The nice thing about applying manure on this ground where we have been using no-till and cover crops is that it will soak in quickly—in 20 minutes. We don’t have to use much more nitrogen on our ground because we can utilize the hog manure,” said Berger.
Northey said his first experience with cover crops on his farm was not successful because there wasn’t enough moisture for the cereal rye to grow. He did try planting a cover crop again in 2014 and got a better stand. The seed was flown on because of the later harvest.
Berger said he has propelled his soil organic matter levels in fields here he’s used cover crops, which has led to an increase in crop yields. Rye is sprayed in early April before planting corn. He allows it to grow a little longer when planting soybeans.
The roots from the cover crops help with water-holding capacity in his fields also.
“We want to have something growing in our fields year-round to help improve the land for future generations,” said Berger.
Northey said adding cover crops to management practices for farmers needs to become part of the infrastructure just as the use of terraces, tiling, no-till and conservation tillage has to improve soil and water quality.
“It is important for us to tell our story about our farming practices in our community and outside our community. So many farmers sit back and watch a neighbor try something new before they will try it,” said Northey. “If they know why these practices are important, then they might try something sooner, in order to improve soil and water quality as well as their yields.”
Jennifer Carrico can be reached at 515-833-2120 or firstname.lastname@example.org.